For the second year running, Hardik Pandya’s Gujarat Titans was undoubtedly the most complete squad in the Indian Premier League (IPL). But for the orisons of the yellow blossom on the banks of the Sabarmati, a dogged Hardik had to let go of the throne this time for Chennai Super Kings captain M. S. Dhoni, his revered philosopher and guide.
“I’m very happy for him (Dhoni), destiny had this written. If I had to lose, I’d rather lose to him. Good things happen to good people, and he’s been one of the best people I know,” Hardik remarked with a sense of pride.
After two nights of thrills and literal spills at the Narendra Modi Stadium, the most frenetic of all T20 tournaments ever played fittingly whittled down to the last two permissible deliveries to decide the champion.
As Ravindra Jadeja and Shivam Dube struggled to dig out Mohit Sharma’s inch-perfect string of four yorkers in the final (15th) over of a 171-run chase, the Titans had enumerated the power of their rehearsal and conviction in finding the right men for different tasks. CSK and Mumbai Indians had mastered the art over the years. The trophy cabinet is a testament. In character, the Titans are primed to head the same way.
When Hardik let out a wide, relieved grin before Mohit’s fifth delivery after a brief halt for strategic deliberations, it seemed like one more of his meticulous decisions had impetuously proved right.
But as sport would have its conniving look at every achiever, Mohit would let Jadeja soar with a six. Even with four needed off the final delivery and the chances of an attempted blockhole delivery slipping into a loosener high, the title seemed to stay in the Gujarat den. But Jadeja, a hardwired Saurashtrian, flipped the scales with a cheeky swipe past short fine-leg for four in an epochal finish to an extraordinary season.
A composed Hardik and his men accepted the lesson with grace. If their brief yet triumphant run is anything to go by, the side will return with renewed tactics to stave off blips created by the impact of individuals touching rare air in the opposition.
All four of GT’s league-stage defeats sketched out distinct acts of belligerence. Only an otherworldly Rinku Singh heist for the Kolkata Knight Riders, a Sanju Samson-Shimron Hetmyer counterattack for the Rajasthan Royals, an Ishant Sharma death-bowling masterclass for the Delhi Capitals, and T20 batting scientist Suryakumar Yadav’s maiden IPL century for MI trumped the Titans. Simply put, no binding of ordinary or even above-average quality cricket has gone past it this year.
Dhoni and Co. nearly spilt it on Monday night when the captain’s decisions erred on multiple fronts and his local pacers were a letdown again. But the CSK batters won the hard skirmish of negating two of GT’s best bowlers, Mohammad Shami and Rashid Khan, on the night of the final.
Shami, the most effective new-ball proponent of the season, went wicketless. Rashid, an automated threat every day of the year, was clobbered left and right for 44 runs in three overs.
The Afghan wrist-spinner’s hot and cold performance, in hindsight, lingers as one of the sporadic blemishes for the Titans. While Rashid recorded his best season in terms of wickets (27), he also conceded runs at 8.23 runs per over, a drastic spike from his career economy of 6.67. Rashid also conceded the second-most runs (552) ever by a bowler in any IPL season, surprisingly only behind CSK’s Tushar Deshpande, who conceded 564 runs this year.
However, the Titans’ malleability to mould and live up to their challenges has surprised most teams. A no-nonsense approach from the management, helmed by coach Ashish Nehra, has ensured that they have tapped into simplistic areas for realistic improvements on the field.
GT’s batting had an anchor-heavy outlook in its title cruise last year. Sai Sudharsan’s nimble rise to fill an injured Kane Williamson’s shoes in the first match this season suggested continuity in approach. However, midway into their maiden home-and-away campaign, the Titans grasped the necessity for a quicker approach.
A princely Shubman Gill’s precocious fulfilment with the bat made the Titans take a pragmatic call with an abrupt Sudharsan axing five matches into the season, disallowing emotions to override rational judgement. Hardik selflessly took up an unfamiliar role at number three and even allowed Vijay Shankar to realise his full potential as a clean ball striker in the middle-order, ahead of the southpaw muscle of David Miller and Rahul Tewatia. And when runs once again became a non-negotiable currency towards the business end, the Titans were willing to add the Sudharsan cushion in the top three. It nearly paid off in the final with the left-hander’s enticing 47-ball 96.
In the most run-conducive edition in 15 years, IPL-16 produced a record 1124 sixes, with the overall batting strike rate crossing 140 (141.71) for the first time. The Titans stood at the forefront of the revolution, enhancing their strike rate from 132.33 in 2022 to 146.69 - the third-best this year. The range-hitting also found a new dimension for the Titans on the healthy Ahmedabad pitches, with the sixes count vaulting to 124 from a lowly 79 in 2022.
Barring the Rashid aberration and the odd game-defining spells of fringe bowlers Yash Dayal and Darshan Nalkande, the Titans have plenty to look forward to on the bowling front too. Besides Shami and Mohit’s inimitable presence, which firmed up the PowerPlay and death-overs, the Titans also unearthed a sprightly left-arm spinner in Noor Ahmad. In his maiden stint, the 18-year-old managed 16 wickets at an appreciable economy of 7.82, also outshining his senior compatriot Rashid with a stellar two for 17 in the final.
While teams like MI and CSK may need overhauls in several departments next season, the Titans will reemerge as the team to beat, powered by a leader who will not settle for mediocrity.
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